Psalm 17
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Psalmist and his companions (Psalm 17:11) are beset by proud and pitiless enemies, bent upon their destruction. One among them is conspicuous for the virulence of his hostility (Psalm 17:12). Such an occasion in David’s life is described in 1 Samuel 23:25 ff., when “Saul pursued after David in the wilderness of Maon … and David made haste to get away for fear of Saul; for Saul and his men compassed David and his men round about to take them.” The thoughts and language of the Psalm find parallels in Davidic Psalms, especially 7 and 11. Many critics however refer this Psalm as well as 16 to a much later period. Ewald places them in the Exile.

The links of connexion between this Psalm and Psalms 16 should be studied. Compare Psalm 17:3 with Psalm 16:7; Psalm 17:5 with Psalm 16:11; Psalm 16:8; Psalm 17:6 with Psalm 16:1 (God = El); Psalm 17:7 with Psalm 16:1; Psalm 16:10 (one who has taken refuge in Jehovah naturally appeals to the Saviour of those that take refuge in Him; Jehovah’s beloved one (châsid) naturally pleads for the manifestation of His chesed or lovingkindness); Psalm 17:14 with Psalm 16:5 (the contrast between the portion of the worldly and that of the Psalmist). The ground of appeal in 17 is that integrity of devotion which inspires 16; in both Psalms communion with Jehovah is set forth as the highest joy; Psalm 17:15 re-echoes Psalm 16:9-11. Cp. ‘I shall be satisfied’ (Psalm 17:15) with ‘satisfying fulness’ (Psalm 16:11). But the tone of the two Psalms presents a striking contrast, and points to the difference in the Psalmist’s circumstances. In 16 danger is in the background: the Psalm breathes a spirit of calm repose and joyous serenity. In 17 danger is pressing, and help is urgently needed. The faith of calmer days is being put to the proof.

The Psalm may be divided thus:

i. Appeal to Jehovah for justice on the ground of the petitioner’s integrity (Psalm 17:1-5).

ii. Prayer for protection on the ground of Jehovah’s relation to him, enforced by a description of the virulence of his enemies (Psalm 17:6-12).

iii. Reiterated prayer for Jehovah’s help, and contrast between the contentment of these men with their material blessings and his own longing for the closest communion with God (Psalm 17:13-15).

A prayer of David is a fitting title for this Psalm. Cp. Psalm 17:1, and Introd. p. xv.

A Prayer of David. Hear the right, O LORD, attend unto my cry, give ear unto my prayer, that goeth not out of feigned lips.
1. the right] Lit. righteousness or justice. With a righteous cause and a just appeal (Psalm 7:8) the Psalmist appears before the righteous Judge (Psalm 7:17; Psalm 9:4; Psalm 9:8), confident in the integrity of his motives towards God and man. A good conscience is the indispensable condition of earnest prayer.

my cry] The word denotes a shrill piercing cry, frequently of joy, sometimes as here of entreaty, “expressive of emotional excitement such as an Eastern scruples not to use in prayer” (Cheyne). Cp. Psalm 61:1; Jeremiah 7:16.

that goeth not out of feigned lips] Uttered by no deceitful lips. Cp. Psalm 5:6; Psalm 10:7. There is no hypocrisy in this prayer.

1, 2. An appeal for justice.

Let my sentence come forth from thy presence; let thine eyes behold the things that are equal.
2. The petition. Let my judgement come forth from thy presence. Cp. Psalm 37:6; Isaiah 42:1; Isaiah 42:3-4; Habakkuk 1:4. Pronounce sentence for me; publish it; give effect to it, and vindicate the justice of my cause.

Let thine eyes &c.] Better, Thine eyes behold equity, or, with equity. The prayer is based on the known character of Jehovah. His discernment is complete and impartial. Cp. Psalm 11:4; Psalm 9:8.

Thou hast proved mine heart; thou hast visited me in the night; thou hast tried me, and shalt find nothing; I am purposed that my mouth shall not transgress.
3. Thou hast tried mine heart (Psalm 7:9; Psalm 11:4-5); thou hast visited me in the night, when men’s thoughts range unrestrainedly, and they appear in their true colours (Psalm 36:4); thou hast proved or refined me (Psalm 66:10), and findest nothing, no dross of evil purpose. But see next note.

I am purposed &c.] A difficult and much disputed clause. The A.V., retained in R.V. text, follows the Massoretic accents. It is however better to connect this and the preceding clause thus:

Thou hast proved me, and findest no evil purpose in me;

My mouth doth not transgress.

In thought, word, and deed (Psalm 17:4), he has nothing to fear from the Divine scrutiny.

3–5. The bold language of a good conscience. See Introd. p. lxxxvii. Cp. Acts 23:1; Acts 24:16.

Concerning the works of men, by the word of thy lips I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer.
4. As for the works of men, by the word of thy lips

I have shunned the paths of the violent.

In regard to his behaviour as a man among men, he has obeyed the Divine precepts, and marked and shunned the ways of violent men, avoiding their example and society. God’s commandments have been his preservation, supplying the rule and the strength for his conduct. ‘The paths of the violent’ are the opposite of the ‘path of life,’ Psalm 16:11. (Proverbs 1:19; Proverbs 2:11-19, &c.). Robbery with violence is mentioned as the commonest form of wrong doing to neighbours (Jeremiah 7:11; Ezekiel 18:10). For illustration of the verse from David’s life see 1 Samuel 25:32 ff; 1 Samuel 24:10 ff.; cp. Psalm 7:3 ff.

The P.B.V., Because of men’s works, that are done against the words of thy lips, is untenable.

Hold up my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps slip not.
5. My steps have held fast to thy tracks,

My feet have not slipped.

The A.V. is grammatically untenable. He describes his conduct positively. Paths, a different word from that in Psalm 17:4, denotes the beaten tracks made by wheeled vehicles. Slipped (the same word as moved in Psalm 15:5, Psalm 16:8), of moral ‘slips’ and ‘falls.’

I have called upon thee, for thou wilt hear me, O God: incline thine ear unto me, and hear my speech.
6. I have called upon thee] I is emphatic. Being such an one as I am, I have called upon Thee, in full confidence that Thou wilt answer me.

O God] El, as in Psalm 16:1. See note on Psalm 5:4.

hear] Wrongly printed in italics in many editions.

6–9. After protesting his integrity he resumes his prayer.

Shew thy marvellous lovingkindness, O thou that savest by thy right hand them which put their trust in thee from those that rise up against them.
7. Shew thy marvellous lovingkindness] Lit., Make marvellous thy lovingkindnesses: Vulg. mirifica misericordias tuas. Cp. Psalm 31:21, and note on Psalm 9:1. The word implies a signal intervention on his behalf. The need is great, but God’s power is greater.

Parallel passages decide in favour of connecting O thou that savest by thy right hand (Psalm 60:5; Psalm 20:6). R.V. follows the original in transferring by thy right hand to the end of the verse for emphasis. But the balanced brevity of the Hebrew (the whole verse contains but six words) defies translation. For put their trust, cp. Psalm 16:1; for those that rise up against thee, cp. Psalm 59:1, Psalm 18:48. Grammatically possible, but unsupported by analogy, is the rendering of R.V. marg., from those that rise up against thy right hand; cp. P.B.V., from such as resist thy right hand, which follows the LXX, Vulg., and Jer. (a resistentibus dexterae tuae).

Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings,
8. Keep me &c.] Or, Preserve me (the same word as in Psalm 16:1) as the apple or pupil of the eye, an emblem of that which is tenderest and dearest, and therefore guarded with the most jealous care. Cp. Deuteronomy 32:10; Proverbs 7:2; Zechariah 2:8.

Hide me &c.] A favourite figure, taken from the care of the mother-bird for her young, not however specially from the hen (Matthew 23:37), for there is no trace in the O.T. of the practice of keeping domestic fowls. Cp. Psalm 36:7; Psalm 57:1; Psalm 61:4; Psalm 63:7; Psalm 91:4. As the first half of the verse may refer to Deuteronomy 32:10, the figure may have been suggested by the reference to the eagle in Psalm 17:11; but the figure there is quite different. God’s leading of His people is compared with the eagle teaching its young to fly.

From the wicked that oppress me, from my deadly enemies, who compass me about.
9. that oppress me] R.V., that spoil me. Cp. Psalm 12:5. (R.V.).

my deadly enemies] Nothing but his life will satisfy them. Cp. 1 Samuel 24:11. This is the sense, whether the exact meaning is enemies in soul, i.e. with murderous intent (Psalm 27:12; Psalm 41:2), or enemies against (my) soul.

They are inclosed in their own fat: with their mouth they speak proudly.
10. Prosperity has resulted in obtuse self-complacency and contemptuous arrogance. Cp. Psalm 73:7-8; Job 15:27. The right rendering of 10 a is however probably (cp. R.V. marg.) Their heart (lit. midriff) have they shut up. They have closed it against every influence for good and all sympathy. Cp. 1 John 3:17. See for this explanation Prof. Robertson Smith’s Religion of the Semites, p. 360.

they speak proudly] Cp. Psalm 12:3 ff.; Psalm 10:2; Psalm 31:18; Psalm 73:6.

10–12. The character of his enemies.

They have now compassed us in our steps: they have set their eyes bowing down to the earth;
11. It has come to this that they beset the Psalmist and his adherents at every step. See 1 Samuel 23:26.

They have set &c.] R.V., They set their eyes to cast us down to the earth. They watch intently for an opportunity of overthrowing us. Cp. Psalm 37:32; Psalm 37:14; Psalm 10:8.

Like as a lion that is greedy of his prey, and as it were a young lion lurking in secret places.
12. Like as a lion &c.] Lit., He is like a lion that is greedy to raven. (Psalm 22:13). One of the pursuers (Saul, if the singer is David) is conspicuous for ferocity and craftiness. Cp. Psalm 7:2; Psalm 10:8-9.

Arise, O LORD, disappoint him, cast him down: deliver my soul from the wicked, which is thy sword:
13. Arise, O Lord (Psalm 3:7), confront him, meet him face to face as he prepares to spring (or, as R.V. marg., forestall him), make him bow down, crouching in abject submission (Psalm 18:39). The same word is used of the lion in repose, Genesis 49:9; Numbers 24:9.

13, 14. from the wicked, which is thy sword: from men which are thy hand] This rendering, which is in part that of Jerome, is retained in R.V. marg. For the thought that God uses even the wicked as His instruments see Isaiah 10:5, where the Assyrian is called the rod of Jehovah’s anger. But R.V. text is preferable: from the wicked by thy sword; from men, by thy hand. Cp. Psalm 7:12.

From men which are thy hand, O LORD, from men of the world, which have their portion in this life, and whose belly thou fillest with thy hid treasure: they are full of children, and leave the rest of their substance to their babes.
14. from men of the world] Men whose aims and pleasures belong to the ‘world that passeth away’: those who in N.T. language are ‘of the world’ (John 15:19), ‘sons of this age’ (Luke 16:8; Luke 20:34-35), ‘who mind earthly things’ (Php 3:19). They are further described as those whose portion is in [this] life. Jehovah Himself is the portion of the godly (Psalm 16:5); these men are content with a portion of material and transitory things. See Psalm 49:6 ff.; Psalm 73:3 ff.; Wis 2:6 ff. The sense is still better given by the rendering of R.V. marg., From men whose portion in life is of the world. God deals with them according to their own base desires. They care only for the satisfaction of their lower appetites (Php 3:19), and so He “who maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good” fills their belly with His store of blessings, gratifies the animal part of their nature (Job 22:18; Luke 16:25).

They are full of children] Better, They are satisfied with sons, the universal desire of men in Oriental countries being to see a family perpetuating their name (Job 21:8; Job 21:11); and leave their superabundance to their children; their prosperity continues through life, they have enough for themselves and to spare for their families.

As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.
15. As for me, in righteousness let me behold thy face:

Let me be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.

With the low desires of worldly men the Psalmist contrasts his own spiritual aspirations. He does not complain of their prosperity; it does not present itself to him as a trial of patience and a moral enigma, as it does to the authors of Psalms 37, 73. Their blessings are not for an instant to be compared with his. ‘To behold Jehovah’s face’ is to enjoy communion with Him and all the blessings that flow from it; it is the inward reality which corresponds to ‘appearing before Him’ in the sanctuary. Cp. Psalm 16:11. ‘Righteousness’ is the condition of that ‘beholding’; for it is sin that separates from God. Cp. Psalm 11:7 note; Psalm 15:1 ff.; Matthew 5:8; Hebrews 12:14.

He concludes with a yet bolder prayer, that he may be admitted to that highest degree of privilege which Moses enjoyed, and be satisfied with the likeness or form of Jehovah. See Numbers 12:6-8. Worldly men are satisfied if they see themselves reflected in their sons: nothing less than the sight of the form of God will satisfy the Psalmist. Cp. Psalm 16:11. See Driver on Deuteronomy 4:12.

But what is meant by when I awake? Not ‘when the night of calamity is at an end’; a sense which the word will not bear. What he desires is (1) the daily renewal of this communion (cp. Psalm 139:18; Proverbs 6:22); and (2) as the passage in Numbers suggests, a waking sight of God, as distinguished from a dream or vision.

The words are commonly explained of awaking from the sleep of death to behold the face of God in the world beyond, and to be transfigured into His likeness. Death is no doubt spoken of as sleep (Psalm 13:3), and resurrection as awakening (Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2). But elsewhere the context makes the meaning unambiguous. Here, however, this reference is excluded by the context. The Psalmist does not anticipate death, but prays to be delivered from it (Psalm 17:8 ff.). The contrast present to his mind is not between ‘this world’ and ‘another world,’ the ‘present life’ and the ‘future life,’ but between the false life and the true life in this present world, between ‘the flesh’ and ‘the spirit,’ between the ‘natural man’ with his sensuous desires, and the ‘spiritual man’ with his God ward desires. Here, as in Psalm 16:9-11, death fades from the Psalmist’s view. He is absorbed with the thought of the blessedness of fellowship with God[9].

[9] Comp. Delitzsch: “The contrast is not so much here and hereafter, as world (life) and God. We see here into the inmost nature of the O.T. belief. All the blessedness and glory of the future life which the N.T. unfolds is for the O.T. faith contained in Jehovah. Jehovah is its highest good; in the possession of Him it is raised above heaven and earth, life and death; to surrender itself blindly to Him, without any explicit knowledge of a future life of blessedness, to be satisfied with Him, to rest in Him, to take refuge in Him in view of death, is characteristic of the O.T. faith.” The Psalms, p. 181.

But the doctrine of life eternal is implicitly contained in the words. For it is inconceivable that communion with God thus begun and daily renewed should be abruptly terminated by death. It is possible that the Psalmist and those for whom he sung may have had some glimmering of this larger hope, though how or when it was to be realised was not yet revealed. But whether they drew the inference must remain doubtful. In the economy of revelation “heaven is first a temper and then a place.”

It is indeed impossible for us to read the words now without thinking of their ‘fulfilment’ in the light of the Gospel: of the more profound revelation of righteousness (Romans 1:17); of the sight of the Father in the Incarnate Son (John 14:9); of the hope of transfiguration into His likeness here and hereafter, and of the Beatific Vision (2 Corinthians 3:18; Php 3:21; 1 John 3:2; Revelation 22:4).

It may be remarked that none of the ancient versions render as though they definitely referred the passage to the Resurrection. Targ., Aq., Symm., Jer., all give a literal version. The LXX, I shall be satisfied when Thy glory appears: Syr., when Thy faithfulness appears: Theod., when Thy right hand appears: seem to have had a different text. Thy glory is substituted for thy form in LXX as in Num. 12:18.

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